Our theme this morning is reconciliation which is appropriate for a communion service. Reconciliation is at the heart of the Christian faith we profess – first with God and then with each other. As we reflect on what it means, keep this in mind: reconciliation is not about sweeping things under the carpet or saying the past doesn’t matter. If that were the case there was no need for Jesus to go to the cross or even to enter into this world at all. It is about recognising the pain of the past, putting it right where possible and moving forward with understanding.
I trained as a minister between 2004 and 2007. During this time there was a big discussion going on publicly and in the church about apologising to the people whose ancestors had borne the brunt of slavery and the negative impact of Empire. We had racial awareness and diversity training and there was one session when we met in the college chapel, which was the biggest space, to listen to a minister in the LBA called Kumar. From the Indian continent and a convert from Hinduism to Christian faith, he talked about the impact of Empire on his home country, as well as the question of apologising for slavery; in this instance the BU apologising to Caribbean nations for their involvement in slavery and plantation owning in the 19th Century. The audience was mixed ethnically.
I found this difficult to listen to. First of all I was hearing a perspective I hadn’t heard before. Secondly, I couldn’t understand how we in 21st Century, could meaningfully apologise for something over which we had no influence or control, and did not perpetrate or support. To whom should we apologise since those affected were long dead and the places involved were now independent nations? Kumar was quite animated and didn’t pull his punches and I was getting quite hot under the collar until the point I had to say something or walk out. I stood up and asked, ‘Kumar, how long do we have to go on being blamed for this? For something we in this room didn’t do or agree with? And to whom do we apologise?’ He was not pleased and although I was probably voicing a question others in the room from a white heritage were thinking, I didn’t feel much support and felt that I was now a marked person for having asked the question. I didn’t understand and as a result I could hardly say that I was one with everyone in the room.
I have since done some reading of history from a non-white perspective and have had my eyes opened. I have found out something about the churches justifying slavery and superioty and am horrifed. I have read the accounts of former slaves from 19th Century and find it extremely hard to read about. I have read about the experiences of people who came from the Commonwealth to help the mother country, and I am shocked by the welcome received. I have a little understanding of why these issues still impact today, especially when you have the injustice of those people who came to help being deported suddenly to a country they don’t know; or when an unarmed black man is shot in the street, as Chris Kaba was on 5th September.
Some of you will be asking what on earth has this got to do with the passage and may want to challenge me afterwards or in the discussion groups this week. There is no reconciliation without understanding and facing up to what has happened in the past and what happens in the present, so we can move forward to a brighter future. We cannot say we are one in Christ Jesus if we do not attempt to understand each other.
Paul, in our passage has described himself as a blasphemer, persecutor, insolent and ignorant, but who has received mercy. There is no reconciliation without understanding. He understood what he had been – as did his victims. Let’s look at his career before his dramatic conversion:
- Acts 7: 58 he stands by and looks after the cloaks of those stoning Stephen.
- Acts 8:1 it says that he approved the stoning of Stephen.
- 8:3 – Saul is ravaging the early church, dragging men and women from their homes.
- 9:1 He is described as breathing threats and murder against the disciples of Jesus.
- 9:2 He has been given the authority to bind up and bring to Jerusalem men and women who follow ‘The Way’.
- 26:10 Now Paul speaking before Agrippa says he locked people up and voted for their execution.
- 26:11 He described himself as punishing them and in raging fury persecuting them.
No wonder Ananias was not too happy about going round to see him to restore his sight after his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. No wonder the church was unwilling to welcome him with open arms. This unease is dealt with in just a few verses, but I can’t imagine it was easy to convince people that Saul was now a brother in Christ. The Jerusalem church had lived through his persecution and been personally affected. I’m sure reconciliation wasn’t that easy. I’m sure forgiveness wasn’t that easy.
In 2005 there were a series of suicide bombings on the London transport system and people were killed, injured and traumatised. The daughter of a vicar was one of the victims. She found that she was no longer able to lead communion with its message of forgiveness and reconciliation, because she could not bring herself to forgive the murderers of her daughter. She stepped down from her post. Reconciliation is not easy.
I was listening to a podcast by Justin Welby on the theme of reconciliation. He said that one of his parishioners when he was in a local parish, was unable to say the Lord’s Prayer, because of something that had come to light within her family. She was unable to pray, ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us.’ He asked if she wanted to forgive and if so, to put that as a mental footnote to the prayer; to ask God to be at work enabling her to reach that stage one day when she could forgive. Reconciliation is a tough business because you have to deal with some difficult stuff. Sometimes we may have to accept that things will never be fully reconciled until Christ comes.
What did it take for Paul to be reconciled to the Christian community? A complete change in himself, repentance and an outward working of his faith in Christ. There may have been some who couldn’t fully comes to terms with the fact that Paul the murdering persecutor, was now the preacher of the grace of God in Christ.
What did it take for Paul to be reconciled? It took the cross of Jesus. In Colossians, Paul puts it like this:
For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to
reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by
making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. Colossians 1:19-20
Reconciliation of humankind to God the Father and to each other was not and is not a case of forgetting the past as though it doesn’t matter. The past shapes us and impacts us – even the long past. If you are ‘Rule Britannian’ singer on the last night of the proms, you have been shaped by our 19th Century past. You should then be able to understand how the impact of the empire has shaped those who were on the receiving end. The past shapes and impacts communities and how they see themselves and how others see them. It impacts how other people are understood and treated.
When I was in another church I met J…Knowing this person’s history, helped me understand how they were now, and how events of the present took her back to the past. Knowing this and a lot of patient work, enabled her to find some sort of peace through Christ – not conventional evangelical faith, but a Christian nonetheless. If it was important for me to understand the history of an individual and how it impacted her life, in order to bring about some sort of reconciliation with herself and with God, then it is certainly important for me and you to understand something of the history of communities that experience prejudice and discrimination. Communities that are part of this church.
What did reconciliation cost? Cliff Richard sang with Bette Midler the song, ‘From a distance’. It is a bit of a sentimental semi-religious song and I think some people got excited about it being in the charts in 1990, but I wouldn’t say it is particularly Christian. It talks about God watching the world from a distance. That is not what we believe. The only way reconciliation could take place was because God entered into the world God created, through Jesus Christ. That was what Paul said to the Colossians; it is what we celebrate at Christmas. We do not believe God has ever been at a distance. God in Christ is the ultimate reconciler, because Jesus lived on this earth, felt the joys and the sorrows, the pain and the exultation. He experienced the insults and the prejudice – ‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?’. Jesus took on the sin of the world to bring about reconciliation. The writer to the Hebrews said this:
Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven,
Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not
have a high priest who is unable to empathise with our weaknesses, but we have
one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.
Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may
receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. Hebrews 4:14-16
This is why people who feel oppressed and put down can identify with Jesus, because he has entered into the suffering of the world and didn’t use his privilege to avoid it. Neither did he use his position or authority to put others down. Jesus did not have to enter into this world to know and understand, but it was necessary for us to know that he really is the high priest who can empathise with our weaknesses and sorrows and pain, because he has been there.
What we celebrate in communion is not about sweeping to one side all that has gone on and saying it doesn’t matter; only the fact that we are one in Christ is important. Jesus on the cross confronts and faces the sin of the whole world.